Understanding China’s Policy in the Russia-Ukraine War and Implications for China-US Relations

  • Both China and the U.S. use the conflict as a prism to view future Sino-U.S. relations, from which they imagine possible conflicts and methods of conflict between China and the U.S.

    China’s policy regarding the Russia-Ukraine conflict is stated in the 12 points of “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” released in February 2023. As an interim step, cooling down, deescalation, and ceasefire constitute the basic direction of China’s policy.
    Among the opposing views concerning the reasons for the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, China has its own understanding. But China believes that the first thing to do is secure a ceasefire, which is the only way to prevent the escalation to a wider war, especially a nuclear war. China does not support war and opposes other countries’ active support, which is leading to a prolonging of the conflict.
    China is doing its best to avoid the Russia-Ukraine conflict causing even greater chaos and turbulence in the international situation. Against this backdrop, China’s choosing sides could cause a serious imbalance in the international structure and an intensification of international rivalries. China’s policy is not to join any side against the other, but it is willing to act as a mediator.
    China strives to maintain its relations with all parties concerned, including Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and Europe, and its policy reflects its consistent thinking of maintaining balance and not going to extremes. China has no intention of using the Russia-Ukraine conflict to trap the U.S., nor has it made any move to intensify the conflict between the U.S. and Europe, and Russia.
    However, the United States disagrees with China’s policy, and, in fact, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has become a new point of contradiction in Sino-U.S. relations.
    The main reason for this outcome is that the basic ideas and policies of the two sides are incompatible. The U.S. policy is still a typical black-or-white logic, which considers China’s failure to oppose Russia to actually constitute support of Russia. The United States demands that China must choose a side. In fact, the only choice Washington permits for Beijing is to stand on the side of the U.S. and Europe against Russia.
    The Russia-Ukraine conflict has had a spillover effect on Sino-U.S. relations. Both China and the U.S. use the conflict as a prism to view future Sino-U.S. relations, from which they imagine possible conflicts and methods of conflict between China and the U.S., precipitating negative impacts on Sino-U.S. relations. Fundamentally, however, the unfortunate state of China-U.S. relations did not begin with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, nor was it the primary cause.
    The U.S. is unsatisfied with China’s continued development of Sino-Russian relations, which China believes it has good reason to pursue. Russia is China’s largest neighbor, and the two countries have a complex history and a long border of more than 4,300 kilometers. The Sino-Russian relationship has multiple and significant interests for China, and these are long-term and unchanging. China does not support war and advocates for the respect of the territorial integrity of states, but will not put China’s national interests at risk. China considers cooperation with Russia normal and legitimate, and it is also willing to develop cooperation with the U.S., Europe, and Ukraine. As a matter of fact, the United States’ ongoing strategic suppression of China has objectively contributed to the growing closeness of Sino-Russian relations.
    It is unrealistic to expect full cooperation between China and the U.S. on the issue of the Russian-Ukraine conflict. It is also too early to discuss post-war reconstruction without knowing when and in what form the conflict will end. Yet, there is still room for China and the U.S. to explore cooperation in certain specific areas. In the current situation, the focus of cooperation can and should be on preventing nuclear war and a world war. The two countries can do so by avoiding escalation of the conflict and striving for a ceasefire.
    In addition, stabilizing the world’s food supply, ensuring the smooth flow of international transport routes, preventing nuclear proliferation, and responding to humanitarian disasters should all form areas of fruitful cooperation.

    In a series of articles, Chinese and American experts intend to make explicit the misperceptions that drive the mistrust in the ever-increasing instability in the bilateral relationship.
    This article was first published on The Diplomat on Nov. 12, 2023.Zhao Huasheng is a professor of the Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies at Fudan University. He is also a China Forum expert.

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